While we are still being fed tiny morsels to whet our appetites for an adaptation to Stephen King’s Dark Tower series (Aaron Paul! Javier Bardem! Netflix!), it still remains an extremely unlikely prospect that the hybrid TV-film series will ever get off the ground.
At least we have the books. And such books. Eight volumes spanning decades in publication history, thousands of pages, numerous revisions and revisitations, all depicting an epic quest in search of the elusive Dark Tower.
And yet it remains a series unlike many others, and quite (understandably) resistant to the bandwagoning that has seen other epic series like A Song of Ice and Fire hurtle into the stratosphere of public acclaim. It is a difficult series, strange and evolving, and defying genre classification. It isn’t even easy for regular Stephen King fans, many unsure how to place the series in his oeuvre, given how it seems to reference and influence many of his classics.
Here then, for those considering beginning their own journey, is a brief introduction to Stephen King’s Dark Tower series.
Eight in all, published between 1982 to 2012.
The first, The Gunslinger, was actually started by King as a university student and took him over twelve years to write before it first saw daylight as serialised short stories in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, only bundled together as a complete novel a year later.
It is possibly the most difficult of the books – a dense, ambiguous genre-bender that introduces the main character, Roland, and his pursuit of The Man in Black; the first stage of the quest for The Dark Tower. King drew inspiration from the Robert Browning poem Childe Roland To The Dark Tower Came, and fashioned a story that was part-Western, part-Jodorowsky acid trip, part-knight’s tale of chivalry and exile, with doses of fantasy and horror thrown in for good measure.
From there, the story picks up with The Drawing of the Three, where King happily admits his style and narrative really takes hold. Roland draws forth supporting characters for his quest, pulling them through portals between his world and (supposedly) our world. This continues in the third book, The Waste Lands, which leads Roland and his group further into a decaying world, full of abandoned cities and malevolent technology, as it becomes apparent Roland need not just find the Dark Tower, but he must actually save it.
It was six years until King wrote the fourth book, Wizard and Glass, and at this stage the series had already been going for fifteen years. Easily the most divisive novel in the series, this is effectively one big flashback into Roland’s past, where much of his world is explored and established so as to give further urgency and agency to his quest. It’s also some of King’s strongest writing, in what is really an old-fashioned tragic romance.
In 1999, King was hit by a car and nearly died, with the series incomplete. Having this knowledge of the writer’s reality in mind when reading the rest of the series is necessary. The Wolves of the Calla was published in 2003, followed shortly by Song of Susannah in 2004, and The Dark Tower in 2005 – King evidently charging to the finish with a clear idea of the importance of this series in his career. As one reads these final books, it becomes frighteningly clear how important these books are to King, and how he views them in contrast to all his other writing.
In 2012, King published a short re-entry to the series, The Wind Through the Keyhole, a book that surprised some and added much to the journey of Roland – and is best seen as Book 4.5 in the series.
First and foremost, it is the story of Roland Deschain, the last gunslinger of Gilead, the last great city of his world. He is seen as a descendant of a King Arthur-like mythical figure, and yet for all these knightly qualities, his persona is borrowed liberally from Clint Eastwood’s Man Without a Name gunslinger in his spaghetti westerns. It is his quest for the Tower, his journey that binds the tale, and is for all intents and purposes, the defining hero for Stephen King’s imagination.
Roland brings with him Eddie Dean, a recovering heroin addict and small-time grifter, Odetta Holmes, missing both her legs due to an accident and suffering from schizophrenia, and Jake Chambers, an eleven-year-old figurative ‘son’ of Roland’s. All three are pulled out of New York and into Roland’s world, to take up the quest with him.
These three – and a few others here and there – form Roland’s ka-tet, a term King uses to signify the bond of a group unified by a single purpose and destiny. It is a concept King returns to in many of his novels, but it is in this series that he gives it particular significance.
Roland’s world is similar to our own yet not. He journeys from In-World to Mid-World to End-World, noting often how death, decay and ruin seem to befall everywhere he goes. The world’s moved on, is the repeated phrase, and it becomes clear that Roland’s world is merely one level of the Dark Tower, which is in danger of crumbling and thus bringing about the end of his world.
However, with the introduction of the New York characters, and others, it becomes clear that The Dark Tower connects many worlds, and that all are in danger. The Dark Tower is both literal and symbolic, an axis mundi to the universe, but also to Stephen King’s imagination.
It’s an epic series, a unique series, one that covers a scope quite beyond this short introduction. It’s difficult for me to think of a series that stands not just as a thrilling and imaginative journey, but also as a personal document, a story that attempts to explain a storyteller. If you’re at all interested, I suggest opening The Gunslinger and just reading the first line. It won’t let you go.